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Monday, 2 April 2001
Page: 26211

Mrs IRWIN (10:15 PM) —As a woman in this parliament, I find it very interesting that the coalition members debating the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000 are all men. I think that only one coalition woman has spoken to this bill, and I find that inaction from the women on the opposite side of the chamber absolutely disgusting.

The debate on this legislation before the House this evening is one that has been going on across the country for some months now—in homes, in workplaces, in pubs and in the letters pages of our daily newspapers. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this issue. Who is right and who is wrong? As always, the answer to this question depends on your point of view, and your point of view will depend on the values that are the foundation of your opinions. That is why discussion on religion or politics is banned in some circles. Often this is because of bitter experience. One side rarely convinces the other and the question is either settled outside or the parties agree to disagree. That does not mean that all moral questions are disputed. We have in common a central core of values that only a few people would disagree with. The mistake that the Prime Minister and this government make is that they assume that the question of access to assisted reproductive technology involves core human values, ones that cannot be violated.

There are many ethical issues involved in assisted reproductive technology, and governments have been working on these issues for some time. It is hard to see where some of these developments are leading us and what kind of brave new world we would finish up in if we were to allow this technology to proceed without considering the ethical issues involved. But you could hardly say that we have reached the Brave New World or The Boys from Brazil stage. Instead, advances in IVF treatment have brought great joy and fulfilment to a growing number of Australians who would otherwise have been childless. More than 30,000 Australian babies have been born through the IVF program. This benefit has been seen to outweigh many of the moral issues that have surrounded IVF treatment.

Despite objections from some major religious bodies, I believe that IVF treatment is widely accepted in our society. I could not imagine this government trying to ban IVF treatment. That certainly is not the objective of this legislation, although that does seem to be the position of Right to Life Australia. Their press release on this issue states:

At heart the debate is not simply about whether single mothers and/or lesbians make suitable mothers, but about further extending the IVF program ...

Despite the protests of Right to Life, the moral issues we are dealing with here are not issues related to IVF treatment or to other assisted reproductive technology, as such. The moral issues we are dealing with relate to parenting and, in particular, fatherhood. The Attorney-General said as much when he cut to the chase in his second reading speech. He said:

This issue primarily involves the right of a child within our society to have the reasonable expectation, other things being equal, of the care and affection of both a mother and a father.

He went on to say:

The government is acting to ensure that states and territories have the power to enact legislation to limit the availability of assisted reproductive technologies to married women and those living in a de facto relationship with a male partner.

So we are dealing with values about parenting, not values concerning the practice of assisted reproductive technology, and we are dealing with just one per cent of the number of IVF treatments each year in Australia.

The values relating to parenting and families come up in arguments which stress the so-called right of the child to have, as the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General put it, `the care and protection, other things being equal, of both a mother and a father'. There is that lovely phrase: `other things being equal'. Well, other things rarely are equal, and that is the reason why we have laws like the Sex Discrimination Act.

Supporters of this legislation raise the argument that a child has the right to be born into a family. They then go on to define the form of that family, based on their own values. To follow that line, you would have to state that the worst two-parent family is better than the best single-parent family, and you just cannot say that. You cannot talk in averages when you are making judgments about the lives of individuals. You cannot generalise from the whole population when you are dealing with individual cases.

We need to draw a line between what may be seen as core moral values and those values which merely reflect opinions. We need to distinguish between core values which are held by all but a few in our society and those which represent the opinions of some but by no means all members of our society. The Prime Minister seems to understand the difference between core promises and non-core promises; I hope he can make the same distinction between core values and non-core values. Values are important to us. They express who we are and how we see the world, but we do not all have the same set of values. We have core values in common with each other, but when we break down those values into attitudes and opinions we begin to see differences between one another. This government and many in the community fail to understand this. They assume that their values are the only ones that matter and that everyone else should fall into line with them. But values affect more than just the way we think. Values and opinions influence our attitudes to other people in our society. Where we see people as different or not conforming to our set of values, this can lead to bigotry and discrimination, even to hatred. This bigotry becomes the justification for discrimination. It is here that we should see the harm in this amending legislation, which amends the Sex Discrimination Act, no less.

What benefit does the legislation provide? According to the explanatory memorandum, the amendments are expected to have a minor and unquantifiable financial impact on government revenue—not that they would constitute a serious erosion of the Sex Discrimination Act. It is worth considering the views which have been presented on issues like this. For example, there is the argument that some taxpayers may be unwilling to have their taxes used for purposes to which they object. This argument overlooks the role of governments in distributing revenue on the basis of policies which consider the welfare of the nation as a whole and not just sectional interests. Where the objection is based on religious conviction, it conveniently overlooks the favourable tax treatment of religious institutions and places of worship.

I began by asking who is right and who is wrong in this debate but, as I have explained, when we are not dealing with a high moral principle but with what comes down to opposing views, each held by significant proportions of the population, then the answer really does not matter. We could look at who are the winners and who are the losers. Let us say, for argument's sake, that this legislation is passed. Who wins? You could say that governments may make some minor savings in the cost of IVF treatment if even a small number are denied access to these services. Certainly those individuals and groups who seek to impose their narrow model of a family on the whole of society could claim victory. But, at the end of the day, this issue involves matters of individual conscience, not of the members of this parliament but of the men and women who make up our society.

It is interesting to note that those who have called for members and senators to exercise an individual conscience vote on this issue would then impose the outcome of that vote on the whole of society. They would be the first to deny ordinary citizens the right to act in accordance with their own conscience. This is where the winners finally lose out. While ever one Australian state allows access to assisted reproductive technology, then these services will be available in Australia. It will be costly and inconvenient to seek treatment interstate, but it will be available. It seems crazy that, in the year in which we celebrate the Centenary of Federation, this government wants to force citizens to travel from one state to another to gain access to services. If the cost and inconvenience of seeking treatment interstate is the only downside for the losers, it is a price that many are prepared to pay. As anyone who has undergone IVF treatment will tell you, it takes great courage and endurance to persevere with the program. Success is not guaranteed and there is enormous stress, pain and discomfort involved.

Those people will also tell you that the reward is worth every bit of the cost. But this government wants to deny such treatment to some people who have the courage and dedication to undergo IVF treatment on the grounds that their children would suffer from not having adequate parents. This is laughable. If you devised a test for parents that was as rigorous as that for entry into an IVF program, you would find an awful lot of parents failing the test. But this legislation enables some states to have a laughable test for people in de facto relationships who are to be judged to see if they should be allowed IVF treatment. Any relationship which can withstand the rigours of IVF treatment does not need to meet any other test.

As I have said, there is no high moral principle involved in this amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. If we look for any moral principle to support this legislation, we are left with the argument about the right of children to a mother and a father. Is this a core value? Is it one which all but a few in our society would agree with? Opinion polling would seem to suggest that a large proportion of society would not agree with it. So we could hardly call it a core value. Even the Right to Life organisation dismisses this argument, as I quoted earlier:

The debate is not simply about whether single mothers and/or lesbians make suitable mothers ...

What we are left with is the conclusion that this legislation is not about children's rights, it is not based on some high moral principle—it is nothing more than a shabby exercise in wedge politics. It is clearly an attempt by the Prime Minister and this government to create an us and them type of society. On one side we have the Prime Minister and his white picket fence morality—anyone with values or a lifestyle which does not fit his mould is excluded. They can be freely criticised as dole bludgers and unmarried mothers or any number of terms of abuse that are used, and if this legislation is passed they can be discriminated against. They can be denied access to services that all others in our society are entitled to—not because of a high moral principle, but because of a narrow prejudice and because a small-minded Prime Minister wants to exploit what he sees as a political advantage. The Prime Minister wants to turn back the clock, to go back to the days when men were men and women could be discriminated against. But the Prime Minister is doomed to fail and this legislation is doomed to fail.